Sean Gong
School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science
Queen Mary University of London

1. What are the aims?

Although a successful PhD is commonly judged by one having (1) completed a written PhD dissertation (the thesis), and (2) successfully defended it in ones oral examination (the viva), it is usually not clear how these two objectives can be achieved within a given time (typically 3-4 years). Where to start?

The path to a successful PhD is necessarily a hard but rewarding process of conscientiously develop and master the critical analytical skills for independent research and thought-leadership. It is important that one pays attention to some basic skills:

  1. Formulate plans to meet short-term and long-term goals, learn to meet deadlines under difficult circumstances and time management (nothing is absolute, timing is the essence).
  2. Be able to identify the underlying reasons for changing plans and goals of research. One must learn to tell the difference between goals and approaches taken and not to be easily distracted by the latter.
  3. To solve a good problem, one should learn to formulate Research Questions, identify Key Ideas, acknowledge Risks, and demonstrate Benefits.
  4. Learn to formulate "a story" through presentations and publications to which peers are interested in listening and reading.
  5. Learn to identify underlying problems that require solutions beyond existing methods.
  6. Be able to draw conclusions from extended works, from either positive or negative results.
  7. Learn to evaluate peers work by reading groups, literature search, publication reviews.
  8. Keen to demonstrate the benefit of your research to both expert and non-expert audience.

2. The role of a supervisor: Essential for making progress

  1. Help a student to define a small project in the first year with a definite deadline, e.g. three months from starting. This will highlight problems in approach and if conducted to conclusion can lead to the development of a solution that improves existing methods resulting in the submission of a conference paper.
  2. Establish a supervision committee (typically the supervisor plus another two academic staff) at the beginning of first year in order to advise and review the student's progress throughout a PhD programme.
  3. Make sure the student is familiar with the professional standards of published work by suggesting at least one good PhD dissertation to read.
  4. Ensure that the student understands that original research can only come about after extensive review and analysis of existing works, and requires dedicating time!
  5. Help the student to write concisely and logically. Graphical illustrations can lead to dramatic improvements in the effectiveness of writing.
  6. Ensure the student has a professional attitude to research:
    1. Present legible written work at mutually convenient deadlines and regularly.
    2. Attend weekly supervision meetings with presentations on research in progress, methods attempted, and papers read.
    3. Treat research like a job though flexible working hours (minimum 8hrs per working day).
  7. Encourage the student to give informal seminars and "dry-runs" of conference presentations. Help the student to learn how to learn from criticism and improve presentational skills.
  8. Arrange staged progress reviews for the student with the supervision committee to make sure that the student makes adequate progress in a timely fashion.
  9. Encourage independence after the first year and make sure a student is able to set ones own goals and meet deadlines. Help the student to understand underlying problems when failed to meet deadlines.
  10. Ensure that second and third year students help in the training of first year freshers and that a student makes active contributions to research group activities, such as organising seminars and reading groups.
  11. Encourage final year students to give group seminars before writing dissertation and to help organise story line and the structure of ones thesis.
  12. Encourage a student to read as widely as possible outside ones discipline and to discuss ones research with friends and non-experts.

3. What are expected from a good PhD?

  1. PhD dissertation of quality on time (3-4 years) and successfully defending the dissertation in the oral exam.
  2. Average 1 journal publication (e.g. IJCV, PAMI, PR) and 2-3 peer-reviewed conference publications (e.g. ICCV, CVPR, AAAI, ECCV, NIPS, BMVC).
  3. Actively seek to meet and express ones views to experts in the field at workshops, seminars and visits.
  4. Be able to stimulate the supervisor with novel findings and directions of new research.
  5. Be resourceful on learning from peers in ideas, implementations, proposals or demonstrations (do not reinvent wheels).
  6. Keen to pass on the research and knowledge to the next generation of research students.

4. Writing up

A PhD dissertation must not be merely a record of all the work one has carried out - a PhD thesis is not a report of everything one has attempted and experimented. It is about formulating "a story" to convey a message that presents novel contribution(s) to the chosen field. A PhD dissertation should include:

  1. Problem statement - Identification of unsolved problem and reason for solving it:
    1. The purpose and motivation should be clearly stated.
    2. The approach and contributions should be stated explicitly.
  2. Background review (the context) - Status of research to guide the directions in finding solutions:
    1. The relevant background and limitations of existing methods. The candidate should demonstrate adequate knowledge of the subject and critically place ones work in a wider context.
    2. The literature survey should not be encyclopaedic and must provide critical analysis.
  3. Find solutions - Development of ones own ideas formulated in a mathematical framework supported by experimental validation and analysis.
  4. Demonstration of the solutions - Implementations, justifications for assumptions, visualisation of examples.
  5. Assess suitability and limitations - Failure cases, comparative evaluation against other methods, both analytical and experimental.
  6. Open questions and directions of future work.
  7. Appendices (if any).
  8. Bibliography.

Sean Gong, Email: s.gong@qmul.ac.uk
Updated 2020 (V.3)
Revised 1999 (V.2)
Written 1995 (V.1)